A place to live : The resolution of the African housing crisis in Johannesburg, 1944-1954

Wilkinson, Peter
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In March 1944, the African township of Orlando near Johannesburg witnessed the first of a wave of squatter movements which was to sweep across the Witwatersrand during the next three or four years. The movements were, for the most part, a desperate response to the apparent inability or reluctance of the authorities to tackle the massive backlog in housing provision which had developed, in the major industrial centres as African workers and their families flooded in to meet the expanding labour demand brought about by the wartime economic boom. Although South Africa had already experienced phases of rapid urbanization during earlier periods (notably the First World War), the magnitude of the problem which now confronted the state's housing apparatus was unprecedented and soon took on the dimensions of a full-blown crisis as decisive action to remedy the situation failed to materialize. By the beginning of 1955, however, not quite eleven years after the squatters had first thrust themselves into the official consciousness, an editorial in Bantu - the periodical published by the Department of Native Affairs to disseminate its 'viewpoint' amongst the African population - could claim: The solution of the Bantu housing problem has now reached a stage which we can call the end of the beginning. Improved houses are being completed every day. During the next ten years hundreds of thousands of Bantu will be properly housed for the first time (2). This paper is an attempt to move towards an explanation of how this 'solution' of the 'Bantu housing problem' was finally achieved and, more specifically, of how the foundations of what we now know as Soweto came to be laid. It focuses on the resolution of certain strategic issues linked to the provision of African housing and on the establishment of the particular legislative and institutional framework within which the concrete practices that were to generate the form of the 'modern' township were brought into play. In coming to terms with the mass of detailed and often confusing empirical material on which the paper is based, I have tried to avoid the danger of remaining trapped at the level of merely descriptive narrative by explicitly situating the evolution of African housing policy within the political and economic context on which, I would argue, it was always predicated. In this respect, I have found what I consider to be a useful point of entry into the labyrinth of 'facts' in Manuel Castells' conceptualisation of 'urban planning' as the theoretical field of state intervention in the 'urban', where the latter "refers not only to a spatial form, but expresses the social organization of the processes of reproduction".
African Studies Seminar series. Paper presented 27 July 1981
Housing. South Africa. Johannesburg